On Tuesday, voters in parts of West Philadelphia will reelect a corrupt state representative whose next address is likely to be jail.
They don't have a choice.
That's because Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, who was found guilty of bribery and conflict of interest on Wednesday, is running unopposed. Her own Democratic Party and the Republican Party failed to put up candidates against her — even after she was arrested in 2014, and after she admitted to the investigating grand jury that she'd taken $4,000 in cash bribes from an undercover informant in a sting operation.
Brown's story is a familiar one from a state government contemptuous of voters and the public trust.
The parties do not take candidates to task when they break the few rules that do exist. There is no gift ban for Pennsylvania legislators; they just have to report gifts over $650. Pennsylvania is one of only 11 states that don't limit campaign contribution amounts. And, even though she's been convicted, Brown can show up in Harrisburg when the House's last session this year begins on Nov. 13 and vote on bills. She doesn't have to leave until she is sentenced — scheduled for Nov. 28. And she can keep collecting her paycheck until she is expelled from the chamber.
Brown manipulated the court system and postponed her trial for four years, hoping that she'd be in office long enough to qualify for a state pension. She won't get one, though, because she was convicted of six felony counts.
In 2014, staff writers Craig R. McCoy and Angela Couloumbis reported that former Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, a Democrat, had tried to kill the sting case. Soon after, former Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams picked it up. Kane was so angry that the story leaked that she herself leaked confidential information, to embarrass the staffer she believed informed the Inquirer. She was found guilty of lying to a grand jury in 2016 and resigned. (In a separate matter, Williams was found guilty of taking lavish vacations and gifts in 2017.)
Brown is the last of six politicians caught up in the sting to meet justice. The rest pleaded guilty or no contest so they could cut deals to keep their pensions.
This whole affair was one of the worst in Harrisburg's history – and that's saying a lot. The events will demoralize voters if Harrisburg and the parties don't clean up their acts.
The new speaker should act swiftly to call an election to replace Brown so West Philadelphia can have decent representation. The legislature should change its rules to expel members upon conviction. It should cap campaign contributions and demand frequent disclosure. Legislators should ban gifts, like Gov. Wolf did for the executive branch. A bill banning gifts over $50 that actually made it out of committee should be reintroduced and toughened.
Harrisburg is a freewheeling environment where it's easy to imagine the video recording of Brown peeking inside an envelope stuffed with cash and saying, "Ooh, good looking! … Thank you twice."